The Progressive Transformation of Democracy


The Workshop of Democracy (The American Experiment, Volume Two), by James MacGregor Burns, New York: Knopf, 674 pages, $24.95

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once suggested to a learned audience that "your business as thinkers is to make plainer the way from something to the whole of things; to show the rational connection between your fact and the frame of the universe." James MacGregor Burns is, indeed, one of a select company who strives to achieve this goal. In his biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, of John and Edward Kennedy, as well as in his works on American government, Professor Burns reaches a wide audience among both scholars and the general public. From his extensive sources, he is not afraid to draw conclusions or offer interpretations. In other words, he assumes responsibility for, and tries to help his readers understand, "the whole of things."

His latest book, The Workshop of Democracy, which treats the period from the Civil War to the onset of the New Deal, is the second volume of a projected trilogy designed to tell the story of what he calls "the American experiment." Only a very few historians since George Bancroft, over a century ago, have had the courage and talents single-handedly to attempt large-scale, detailed, scholarly histories of significant portions of the American past. The literature and sources are simply too vast if one is to try to satisfy both the scrutiny of scholars and the general reader's taste for an exciting narrative. Back in 1927 Charles and Mary Beard's best-selling Rise of American Civilization set a high standard as a synthesis of American political and cultural history. More recently in 1965, Samuel Eliot Morison in his Oxford History of the American People offered a more conventional account that is, however, comparable in scope to the works of the Beards and Burns.

Like his distinguished predecessors, Burns hopes to attract a popular audience, while still not forfeiting the respect of his colleagues in academia. The latter will be quick to point out that there is little that is really new in Burns's book, but he is not, after all, writing a monograph to exploit previously unknown sources. And, unlike the Beards and Morison, he does provide full citations of relevant secondary works. From these he distills a fascinating body of richly detailed vignettes to illustrate his narrative. Combining a broadly chronological with a topical approach, Burns is able to keep the story straight with a minimum of flashbacks. If his prose does not convey that overpowering sense of the sweep of the material forces behind American civilization that made the Beards' Rise so exciting, it is still admirably clear and never dull.

Burns's governing interpretation is his faith that the people, working through the agency of a strong government, can achieve social democracy. This, of course, is the New Deal's progressivist positivism refurbished under the contemporary rubrics of the welfare state and the imperial presidency. The criticism of the Jeffersonian ideal of limited government that Burns affirmed in his first volume he now develops more fully.

The Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction of the South offered the first great opportunity for positive government in the United States. After 1865, Republican Party leaders had the signal advantage that "they could proceed without constitutional restraints to a degree not possible since the founding days." To Burns, the critical failure of Reconstruction lay in the realm of leadershipthe lack of a president strong enough to persuade the country to carry out a strategy for transforming Southern society. Such a revolutionary policy, Burns admits, "would have imposed heavy intellectual, economic, and psychological burdens on the North as well."

The real revolution, in what Burns calls "the business of democracy," came through the tremendous expansion in agriculture and industry, in the restructuring of social classes, in the economic opportunities afforded the teeming masses of European immigrants, and in the ideas associated with Social Darwinism. "The bitch-goddess success" is Burns's pejorative term. America was indeed being transformed by the new economic forces symbolized in figures such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Yet American capitalism, though it was on the whole a popular success, was never free from attack by native American radicals and Marxist socialists.

Although the author's sympathies clearly lie with the critics of big business, he also notes the views of staunch individualists such as William Graham Sumner, E.L. Godkin, and Henry George, who feared the threat of government paternalism. Burns does not, however, attend to the argument that much of what passed for laissez faire in late-19th-century America was actually government interventionism in behalf of various special economic interests. A consistent policy of laissez faire, or government hands off, was never tried. Instead, after the 1890s, the tendency was all in the direction of a greater concentration and centralization of political and economic power in the federal government. "Progressive" democracy thus laid the foundation for an ever-increasing nationalism or statism. Curiously, Burns barely mentions the fiscal centerpiece of the so-called Progressive reformsthe federal income tax.

More than anyone else, probably, Theodore Roosevelt aroused public support for the modern American welfare-warfare state and its imperial presidency. A conservative operating as a progressive, Roosevelt, in Burns's sparkling description, reflected the "contradictions and contrarieties" of his America. "He talked peace but carried a gun on any plausible occasion. He loved animals but slaughtered them.…He believed in liberty but of the 'orderly' type. He believed in equality but only with people he respected.…If the 'best classes' did not reproduce themselves, he said, the 'nation will of course go down.…' Thus he favored sterilizing the criminal and the feeble-minded. He viewed the yellow and black peoples as backward and ignorant. Yet he did not embrace Social Darwinist dogma consistently, and increasingly he saw the state as protecting people, without 'paternalism.'"

For Roosevelt, the answer to the country's needs was, of course, "the executive branch, the presidency, or really himself." The presidency, in his view, was the only means of curbing corruption in government and the forces of big business and corporate power. Yet he knew that, as Burns writes, "some of the great moments of American history had seen 'liberty-loving' legislators and citizens pitted against governors and Presidents." Roosevelt did not have the excuse of a civil war, but more than any president since Lincoln he exploited the constitutional and extraconstitutional authority of his position to entwine progressivism and reform with nationalism and statism.

Burns's interpretation of Woodrow Wilson's presidency as an era in which democracy was on trial repeats the wartime president's mistake of identifying American democracy with the lost cause of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. Burns also follows conventional wisdom, or historical hindsight, in his harsh view of the 1920s"the age of Mellon." If this caption is appropriate, and not hyperbole, Burns should at least credit the Republican secretary of the Treasury's accomplishment in reducing taxes and cutting in half the national debt. This was no mean achievement despite the criticism that Mellon's tax plan unduly favored the rich.

Also questionable is the way Burns makes it appear that the war and postwar violations of American civil liberties took place in the '20s. The Red Scare, after all, occurred in 1919 in the Wilson administration. And it was Republican President Warren Harding, as Burns notes, who magnanimously pardoned the Socialist leader Eugene Debs after his wartime conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918.

In Burns's view, "the prime intellectual issue still facing the American people in the 1920s" was the conflict of "a rapidly centralizing system of corporate capitalism with an old-fashioned divided constitutional system." It is hard, however, to accept his conclusion that the American government had become enfeebled by the system of checks and balances or separation of powers envisaged by the Founding Fathers. Like Tocqueville a century earlier, such reigning journalists in the '20s as H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann feared less the government's supposed weakness than its immense power to overawe the individual citizen. In a world too complex and too remote for the mass of the people to understand, public opinion was constantly being manipulated.

Democracy in the United States was, in fact, a noble historical achievement. It is still also, in the words of the author's overall title, "the American experiment."

Arthur A. Ekirch is a history professor at the State University of New York at Albany and the author of The Decline of American Liberalism.